SpaceX's Crew Dragon astronaut taxis may not always cap their missions with ocean splashdowns.
The company might end up trying to snag returning Crew Dragons with net-equipped boats, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said Sunday (Jan. 19) during a news conference shortly after the capsule aced a crucial in-flight abort test (IFA).
SpaceX already operates two such boats, named Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief, which to date have been employed to catch falling rocket payload fairings (the protective nose cones that surround satellites during launch). The boats have succeeded on a few occasions, but most of their targets have ended up in the drink.
"This requires ongoing discussions with NASA, but I think it would be quite cool to use the boats that we are using to catch the fairing, once that is really well-established, to catch Dragon as it's coming in from orbit," Musk said. "And then that would alleviate some of the constraints around a water landing."
NASA has considerable input in this decision because SpaceX has been developing Crew Dragon under a series of contracts from the agency's Commercial Crew Program (CCP). The CCP is counting on SpaceX and Boeing, which is developing its own capsule called CST-100 Starliner, to fly NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS), a job that only Russian Soyuz spacecraft have been able to do since the space shuttle fleet retired in July 2011.
Sunday's successful IFA seems to put Crew Dragon in the home stretch to crewed flight. If detailed IFA data analyses reveal no surprises and Crew Dragon passes two more system-level tests with its revamped parachutes, SpaceX will be cleared to fly Demo-2, a test mission that will carry NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to and from the ISS. Demo-2 could end up launching as early as this spring, Musk said on Sunday.
SpaceX sees total and rapid reusability as the key to opening space to much greater exploration, including the colonization of Mars and the moon. Indeed, the company routinely lands and reflies the first stages of its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket and has pulled off similar touchdowns during liftoffs of the huge Falcon Heavy launcher, which has just a few missions under its belt.
Ms. Tree (which was formerly called Mr. Steven) and Ms. Chief are part of this overall vision. SpaceX payload fairings, which fall back to Earth in two pieces, are worth about $6 million, Musk has said. The company wants to start reusing fairings, a goal that will be more easily achievable if the hardware doesn't get dunked in corrosive seawater.
Similar reasoning likely applies to the putative Crew Dragon catches. SpaceX currently plans to fly a new Crew Dragon on every astronaut-carrying mission to the ISS, but reuse of the capsule for crewed missions might be a more feasible or attractive option in the future if the refurbishment process is eased.
(SpaceX holds a separate contract to fly robotic resupply missions to the ISS using the Falcon 9 and the cargo version of Dragon. Cargo Dragon splashes down in the ocean, and SpaceX routinely reflies that spacecraft. But a different risk calculus applies to human spaceflight.)
Boeing's Starliner comes back down to Earth on terra firma, and each capsule is designed to fly up to 10 space missions, company representatives have said.
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Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.